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Cultivars vs 'unimproved' elderberry, and black vs blue elderberries?

 
Posts: 141
Location: Gulf Islands BC (zone 8)
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I am wondering about the pros and cons of the different species of elderberries, and whether it is worthwhile to go with the named cultivars of S. americanus that I am starting to see advertised on a number of nursery sites?

We will be planting probably a few hundred elderberries in multispecies rows in which chestnuts, hazelnuts, and elderberries are planned as the main cash crops (but interplanted with a lot of other nut and berry plants along with understory perennial species).

At the moment,  I have black American elderberry (S. canadensis) seeds stratifying in my fridge, and as far as I know these are from wild/unimproved plants.  I think there were about 50 seeds in the packet I bought, so I will probably need to get more seeds, or more plants, or wait for these ones to grow and propagate from cuttings. I am trying to decide which is the best course of action.

I gave some thought initially whether to go with the American vs. European elderberry. American seemed the better choice since it is said to have a better taste, plus being native to this continent. I decided to go with seeds to keep costs low (also I like the genetic diversity that comes with growing from seed, and think this will be particularly important in years to come in having plants that can handle climate variability). I wonder though if there are cultivars that are worth getting? I could buy a few and then expand them in coming years from cuttings and mix them among my grown-from-seed elderberries if they are would add value to the plantings.

We are in a climate which is very wet in winter, mainly rainfall, but with a few weeks of snow; extremely dry in summer and getting drier. In the 7 years I have lived here, there have been several with no rain from mid to late April until early October. Last year we had a few rainy days during the summer and people said oh, this is the way summers used to be. But going forward I think we should be prepared for drought in summer being the norm. We do plan to build earthworks to direct the winter water to a pond at the bottom of the slope, a tank at the top of the slope and a solar powered pump to send the water up in summer where it can be gravity fed down into the lines of trees. Put plants that want to be dry on top of the mounds and the others that might like a little more water like elderberries in the ditches. I expect most elderberries would prefer to be in the ditch rather than the mound. But it might be smart to aim for elderberries that are known to be adapted to somewhat drier conditions.

The cultivar 'Ranch' seems to be one that is said to handle climate extremes. Has anyone grown this one? Or have an opinion on any of the other named cultivars?

The other species I am wondering about is blue elderberries. These are supposed to be of similar medicinal value to the black American elderberries, native to western North America, and more adapted to dry conditions than black elderberries. I have never seen them in person, but in the photos the berries seem like they could be smaller than black elderberries.  Also, if I had both growing in the same agroforestry rows, would there be a risk of mistaking one for the other and perhaps harvesting black elderberries that are immature, thinking they are the other species? Or are they easily told apart? Also in terms of making elderberry products for sale (e.g., syrups, tinctures, jellies), would these be more marketable if made only from black elderberries, or would the elderberry-buying public equally accept products made with blue elderberries?

 
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1. Yes, it is absolutely worth going with cultivated varieties.  Yield, ease of harvest, resistance to drop, etc.  are worlds different.   We use our wild elder for their flowers, and the cultivated for their berries.  Also, the studies I have seen show that cultivated elder are as or more nutritious than the wild.  This is unlike many other plants, where they tend to drop in nutritional value when bred by people.

2. Yes, American.  It is hard to get nigra to grow in the US - there are a few cultivars worth trying, and I know a few people having success, but it can be a real challenge.

3.  You will need supplemental irrigation if you tend to become quite dry in the summer.   No way around it if you want good yields and growth.  

4. I would go with hard wood cuttings over seeds, personally.  They grow quickly and vigorously, and you will save yourself 1.5-2.5 years this way in terms of getting good yields.

5. I have little personal experience with blue, as I am in KY, so hopefully someone else can chime in on if they have seen them growing side by side, etc.

6. The market issue is interesting, I do think people prefer nigra, but most don't know what it is.  If you call it elderberry, the average buyer has no real knowledge of the four main (nigra in Europe,  canadensis, blue and red in the US).   Also, we got some nigra from Europe that are quite similar to the canadensis we grow!

7.  Per varieties, I recommend plant 4-6 and 4-8 hard wood cuttings of each and see who wins, and then propagate off those.  
 
Andrea Locke
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Location: Gulf Islands BC (zone 8)
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Thanks JohnW. That is very helpful. I do want to harvest flowers so my 50 ish plants from seed will do nicely for that.

I was leaning toward getting some bare rooted cultivars and what you suggest, getting a few in to try and propagate those that do best, seems very reasonable.

I expect to need to irrigate. Although chestnuts and hazels can survive drought they will need water to produce a decent crop. I am trying to avoid too many very thirsty plants. I can locate some of the thirstier trees like lindens on lower ground near the pond. I have some in pots now and they definitely are the least tolerant of gaps in watering of what i have now.

As far as I know there are no cultivated varieties of blue elderberry. That might mean they are more appropriate for flower harvest like the wild black elderberry. If they are drought tolerant as I have read, it might be worth having some anyway to ensure a crop even in case of very dry future years if irrigation is limited.
 
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“5. I have little personal experience with blue, as I am in KY, so hopefully someone else can chime in on if they have seen them growing side by side, etc.”

Hello fellow Kentuckian! I am about 1.5 hours south of you. My forest encircled meadow has numerous stands of bird planted, wild elder along the edges that produce black-hued berries, and a stand in the meadow, also bird planted.

My question is, should I clear out black berries, honeysuckle, sumac, other woody plants and small trees around the elder that is touching it, even vining on it, to allow them to grow wider and ease harvesting? We have prolific ticks and chiggers in this area and I usually get the worst of it when harvesting. Or do I leave the neighboring plants in the spirit of a permaculture food forest? Are the elder plants and other plants helping each other grow?

Some of my elder is 15-feet tall, so I have to loop rope on the stems and gently bring them down to my level to harvest.  
 
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Location: Allentown, PA but we bought off-grid property in Newark Valley, NY
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I bought a "Nova" elderberry plant spring of 2018, planted it near the alleyway behind our urban house and it has been not so secretly plotting to take over said alleyway ever since.  Clearly this was not the best choice of location although the plant seems very happy.  This past year I harvested and dried a lot of berries and found it a great way to store them.  They dry down to nothing and are stored in small glass jars.

I also started propagating them this fall with the plan of planting them on our rural land.  So I've got a bunch of small shoots rooting in water on my windowsill.  So far, so good.

 
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